Posted on February 22, 2007

A Parallel Muslim Universe

Andrea Brandt and Cordula Meyer, Der Spiegel, Feb. 20, 2007

It’s the silence that visitors notice first. No children’s laughter, no chatter, no pop music. A Protestant minister familiar with the noise level in children’s homes describes the atmosphere as “very spooky.” This Friday, at the end of Ramadan, it is especially hushed in the green house on Hochfeldstrasse in Duisburg, a city near Düsseldorf. Quietly, the boys remove their jackets from the cloakroom’s numbered hooks—many are heading home for the holiday. The blankets are meticulously folded in the dormitories. Toys and posters are nowhere to be seen.

Run by the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers, known by its German acronym VIKZ, the home houses 38 Muslim adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19. They attend state schools in the morning, but otherwise live and learn in the green house. They get help with their homework between 3 and 6 in the afternoon and eat supper at 7. The rest of the day, according to the timetable, they are free to do what they want. Their parents contribute 150 euros a month; the rest is financed by donations.

The residents are not typical of children raised in institutional settings who often come from dysfunctional backgrounds. Most of these boarders are growing up in intact family units. Officially they are here first and foremost to improve their performance at school. “The VIKZ homes improve their educational prospects,” says the organization’s legal counsel, Ersoy Sam, “and hence their prospects of leading successful lives in Germany.”

Nonetheless, German academics and youth experts have warned that this type of group is widening the gulf between Muslims and the rest of society.

Significant increase in fundamentalism

Surveys in the country have charted a significant increase in fundamentalist attitudes, particularly among younger Muslims. The experiences of Ekin Deligöz, a member of the German parliament representing the Green Party, underscore the potential dangers. Having called on Muslim women to remove their headscarves, Deligöz faced death threats and now receives police protection.

Disturbing as this trend may be, it cannot be pinned exclusively on Muslim groups. Under the guise of religious tolerance, German society stood blithely by as some parts of its Muslim communities began turning into parallel societies. For years, the country’s courts have been excusing Muslim girls from coed swimming lessons and class outings—citing the most absurd reasons for their rulings.

However, the example of the VIKZ highlights the difficulties of penetrating the wall of silence that surrounds these Islamic institutions. The VIKZ has a lot of clout among Muslims in Germany. Some 300 mosque communities count themselves as members. It is the third-largest Muslim organization in the country, representing more people than the Central Council of Muslims. In public, the association’s officials are eminently friendly and impeccably dressed, often in stylish pinstriped suits. “Only German-speaking teachers are employed in the group’s homes,” emphasizes Sam. The majority are of German stock, he claims, adding that the homes “are keyed to encouraging intercultural skills and success at school, not religious education.”

The Duisburg home is viewed as the association’s showpiece. In addition to a theologian and teacher of Turkish origin, its payroll includes one German, Holger Kellner, who was assigned by the employment office; a second German is now being sought. Meetings with non-Muslim children are being arranged, starting with occasional weekend soccer tournaments against teams from the local Social Democratic Party’s youth division. Officials at VIKZ argue that this involves more contact with Germans than when the pupils lived with their families.

Yet skepticism is justified. Employing German-speaking teachers is a statutory requirement. And, in practice, pupils often have no time for leisure activities with their non-Muslim peers. One 17-year-old high school student explains that he used to train at a local sports club, but since taking up residence two years ago, sports no longer fit into his daily schedule. Now his friends are “almost all Turkish.”

“Enormous pleasure”

When the issue of free time is mentioned, the responses of the association’s legal counsel tend to be woolly: “Consistent progress has been made toward fostering contacts with members of other youth organizations.”

Critics, such as Reverend Rafael Nikodemus, the Islamic Delegate of the Protestant churches in the Duisburg district, set little store in VIKZ’s professed open-mindedness. Getting the representatives of VIKZ to work with local clubs and churches took “enormous pressure,” says Nikodemus.

University of Marburg professor and VIKZ expert Ursula Spuler-Stegemann is even more outspoken. The Islam expert was commissioned to review the association’s institutions by the region’s social services authority. “I failed to find a single home where there were no major misrepresentations,” she concluded.

That is “definitely untrue,” Sam retorts. While there might have been errors “now and then”—in clear contravention of instructions from the VIKZ executive—”there has certainly been no deception of the authorities or deliberate breaches of the law.”

But in her 2004 report, Spuler-Stegemann presents detailed proof of her allegations. Despite assertions to the contrary, the homes were “almost exclusively devoted to Islamic teaching and practice of the faith,” she wrote. They were “an unequivocal obstacle to integration.” The pupils were “indoctrinated” into a “rigidly sharia-oriented” form of Islam and “immunized” against Christianity, the West and the German constitution. She described VIKZ as an elitist organization within Islam that made sure its pupils were trained to accept strict obedience and an even stricter segregation of the sexes.

VIKZ refutes these censures as “factually incorrect” and “biased.” They represent a “blanket condemnation,” says Sam, adding that his association had never been subject to surveillance by Germany’s security agencies.

Observing the situation for years

Yet the regional government was so alarmed by the concerns that it halted approvals of new VIKZ homes. “The VIKZ officials are full of promises but end up doing whatever they want,” says Hanspeter Pohl, who is responsible for children’s and adolescents’ homes in Hesse’s social services department. Religious instruction took place “on a much larger scale” than was admitted, and children were regularly woken up in the middle of the night for prayers, he said.

Criticisms that the VIKZ is keen to challenge: “Prayer is voluntary; no child is ever coerced to join in.” A junior-high school teacher from North Rhine-Westphalia, whose school is in the catchment area of an unofficial VIKZ home, has been observing the situation for years. She witnessed how the pupils suddenly adopted “extremely anti-Semitic and anti-American attitudes.” English was seen as the enemy’s language. “Today, some of them refuse to speak it at all, even if it means failing their exams.” They reject the theory of evolution in biology lessons, the age of the Earth as discussed in geography, and anything remotely satirical in their German classes, she said.

The teacher made a further observation. When the boys in the home “had been reciting the Koran until 11 o’clock at night, as they did regularly,” they were so sleep-deprived the next day that they simply dozed off during class. Sam rejects these complaints as well: “That is alien to the VIKZ’s work, and the very opposite of its teaching practices.” In some VIKZ homes, he claims, you can “even find books by the Jewish satirist Ephraim Kishon.”

However, evidence abounds that VIKZ is acting outside the law. In May, according to the Rhineland’s youth services department, association members had opened a weekend and holiday camp—without obtaining permission. In Wuppertal, the authorities closed another home in 2004. According to Stefan Kühn, the director of the city’s social services department, some 30 children, including many elementary school pupils, had been living next door to a mosque there—again without the requisite approval. Sam does not dispute these allegations, but maintains they were isolated cases resulting from “miscommunications and misunderstandings.” “All of the associations show a keen interest in youth training. Any groups that can key into the young can secure their futures,” says Herbert Müller, head of the Islamist Competency Group at Baden-Württemberg’s office for national security. “The associations claim to be spearheading the integration of these adolescents into society but—in reality—they mean the various Muslim communities.” Milli Goerues is just one example. The group, which the authorities have under surveillance, runs summer camps for some 30,000 Muslim youngsters, according to its own figures. And the Islamic Community of Germany—which is also considered an Islamist organization—devotes much of its work to young people, above all adolescents of Arab origin.

Islam was stigmatized

According to Faruk Süen, director of the Center for Turkish Studies, the boys and girls are increasingly defining themselves by reference to their faith. In his view, this is another consequence of 9/11. After the terror attacks, Islam was stigmatized by the world at large, he explains, sparking a counterreaction among Muslims. In 2000 Süen’s center conducted a survey. The results showed that 8 percent of immigrants of Turkish extraction said they were “very religious.” In 2005, the figure had climbed to 28 percent.

The survey’s findings on headscarves are also striking. While only 27 percent had thought Muslim women should cover their hair in 2000, the number had almost doubled to 47 percent five years later. A similar pattern emerged on the topics of dual-sex sports classes and participation in coeducational school trips. Rejected by 19 percent in 2000, by last year the proportion had risen to 30 percent.

Women and young men are startlingly conservative: 59 percent of 18- to 30-yearolds favored Muslim women wearing headscarves, as did almost 62 percent of female respondents. Members of mosque associations took particularly orthodox positions, including—and above all—the VIKZ members.

Ironically, German judges have often proved the staunchest supporters of Muslim parents. Time and again they have ruled the parents’ religious freedom paramount—ignoring the rights of girls to join in normal school activities.

In 1993, for example, a federal court found that physical education was not mandatory for a 13-year-old Turkish girl if the classes were not segregated by gender. Even then, the arguments submitted by Bremen’s board of education testified to the exasperation they felt in their efforts to promote integration. The Bremen officials stated that they had already allowed girls to play sports with their heads covered. Allowing further, religious exceptions, they argued, might well jeopardize class trips, sex education classes, theater visits and other extracurricular activities. It was therefore crucial “to apply the existing regulations on school attendance . . . otherwise the teaching at schools with a high percentage of foreigners would disintegrate completely.”

Their words fell on deaf ears. Enforced participation represented an infringement of religious freedom, the judges decided; the school either had to offer single-sex classes or grant the female students a special dispensation, the Supreme Court ruled.

Fear of losing her headscarf

In the following years, the German courts stuck to their guns. In another regional case, the judges had to decide whether a class excursion was mandatory for a Muslim girl. In their ruling of 2002, they parroted the language of a fatwa issued two years previously. The former chairman of the Islamic Religious Community in Hesse had stipulated that a Muslim woman not accompanied by a mahram, a male blood relative, must not stray more than 50 miles from her home—because this is the distance a caravan of camels can travel in 24 hours.

Camels are something of an anomaly on the German autobahn these days. Sympathetic judges nonetheless recommended sending the 15-year-old brother along as a mahram. Given her fear of losing her headscarf or violating other religious laws, the schoolgirl’s condition, they argued, was comparable to that of a “partially mentally handicapped person.” She therefore needed somebody to accompany her; otherwise, she should not be forced to take part in the trip, they reasoned.

Today the impact of Islamist indoctrination is noticeable at almost all schools with a high proportion of Muslim pupils. Although a few courts have reevaluated their position in the meantime and ruled in favor of compulsory school attendance—as, for example, in Hamburg during 2005—teachers are complaining that fewer and fewer Muslim pupils are taking part in swimming, sports in general, or school trips. In Hamburg, according to the teachers’ association, this was true of almost half of Muslim girls in 2004.

On the Muslim-Markt (“Muslim Market”) website run by brothers Yavuz and Güerhan Özoguz, parents can download a form for exemption from swimming lessons and find links to key court rulings. In Berlin in 2001, the Islamic Federation, which is believed to be influenced by the Islamist group Milli Goerues, petitioned for the right to give religious instruction in its own institutions—and now teaches some 4,000 pupils. Marion Berning, principal of Berlin’s Rixdorf Elementary School, was dismayed by the change in the children: “The girls hardly said a word and kept their eyes cast downward; the boys were rambunctious.”

Distracted pupils during Ramadan

A teacher at Richard Elementary in the same district gave disturbing evidence last year to the school committee: German children “weren’t really being tolerated,” and “Christian” was often used as a term of contempt. The teachers were doing their best to set things straight during class “but, sadly, with very little success,” she said.

School is one of the few places where young Muslims come into contact with the non-Islamic environment. As a result, the teachers often see what is happening most clearly. Dietmar Pagel, principal of the Hector-Peterson High School in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, actively seeks dialog with his students. But with increasing frequency, he and his colleagues feel they are banging their heads against a brick wall. “Lots of our adolescents have a fundamentalist outlook on life,” he says. Many more girls are wearing headscarves, and almost all the Muslim students fasted during the major Islamic holidays, with catastrophic consequences for their performance at school. “The further we get into Ramadan, the more distracted the pupils become.”

He often feels let down by the politicians who discuss the problems of integration more passionately than ever, yet won’t appoint the additional social workers and teachers he needs. But Pagel refuses to give up. After the caricatures of Mohammed were published, he attempted to debate the controversy with his pupils. But the discussion was hopelessly lopsided. The children contributed a few bits of factual information, the principal relates, but then “the room fell silent when it came to the moral dimension, so the teachers simply held forth on their own ideas.”

He cannot get through to his pupils any more, Pagel complains. “If I say that headscarves are worn less in Turkey than here, they simply counter: ‘That’s why we came to Germany, so that we can openly practice our religion.’” And sometimes they simply remind him that—as a non-Muslim—he would be better off keeping such views to himself.